The Ugly Underside of the Lottery


Lottery is a way to win money by drawing numbers and hoping that your number comes up. It’s a common form of gambling, with a long history and widespread popularity, but it also has some ugly undersides.

While making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history (it’s even mentioned in the Bible), public lotteries are a relatively recent invention, with their origin dating to the 17th century. In colonial America, they played a significant role in financing both private and public ventures, including roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, and bridges. George Washington even tried to raise funds through a lottery for the Revolutionary War.

Initially, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with the public buying tickets for a future drawing that could be weeks or months away. But innovations in the 1970s changed that. Among the more dramatic changes were instant games, such as scratch-off tickets. These are essentially the same as traditional tickets but have lower prize amounts and higher odds.

People play lotteries for a variety of reasons, from entertainment value to non-monetary gains to simply the desire to try their luck. In addition, lotteries develop extensive specific constituencies, from convenience store operators to suppliers (heavy contributions by lotteries’ vendors to state political campaigns are commonly reported) and teachers (in states where a percentage of revenues is earmarked for education). And there is that intangible sense that everyone deserves a chance at something better.